Open Letter to Mr. Glenn Branca

lp_longo_ascension-1Robert Longo, The Ascension by Glenn Branca, 1981.

The following is a response to a controversial opinions piece that composer Glenn Branca published yesterday morning on the New York Times’ Opinionator Blog, where he basically declares the end of music. You can read the full article here, accompanied by the hundreds of confused and irate comments it has generated.

Mr. Branca,

I think you might be right about a “paradigm shift,” but, as several people have already pointed out on this comment thread, the paradigm you fall back upon (the post-modern “everything has been done before” line) is about just as tired and ossified as you claim 21st century music to be. The other paradigm you cite, which you contrast with the po-mo “end of music” scenario and seem to prefer, resembles the even more old school ideal of musical evolution as an endless teleological progression towards something bigger and better and more in keeping with man’s fullest creative potential (I think you speak in terms of “quality” here, which you do not take the time to define). So you are basically projecting an essentially high modernist ideal onto the cultural production that is emerging nearly 40 years after the post-modern shift–and lamenting when the shoe doesn’t fit, because instead of moving “forward” as you would like it to move, musical history seems–superficially, at least–to keep on repeating itself.

Why not take a step back for a second and put some honest intellectual energy into re-framing that paradigm shift for the 21st century? I’m talking about surveying what is actually being created by young people in independent and experimental music today (the generation that is now approximately the same age as you and your peers when you decided to combine all that academic and avant-garde training with what the cool punk kids were doing downtown) and trying understand it as a unique and time-specific dialogue with the economic and cultural and aesthetic roadblocks that you rightly define as our heritage. The world is always changing, artists will always be responding the historical reality they live day to day (whether they admit to doing so or not), and certain of the roadblocks they face (the recognition that “everything has already been done,” even) may actually be blessings in disguise.

Think about the fact that the millenium generation–possibly the most privileged and over-educated generation in history, weened on the idea that the permanent daylight of late capitalism would last forever, and that they were positively guaranteed success in whatever avenue they happened to pursue–is now sitting around combing job boards in cafés, worried how it is going to make its next rent payment because its hopes of succeeding in finance are dashed and its parents just got laid off as well. Think about all that pop culture–all that music and muzak, all of those horrible ’80s videos and Saturday morning cartoons–that is floating around in its brain, that structures its very consciousness, that it loves like a dear childhood friend but also can’t help viewing now as a symptom of the excesses of a corrupt economic order? Think of all of the alternative knowledge that is warring with all of that pop detritus–the fact that thousands of recent college grads even know who a Glenn Branca or a Rhys Chatham or a Terry Riley or a John Cage is, that knowledge of avant-garde forms like “new music” and “noise music” (along with other alternatives to what we hear on the radio) is at an all time high right now because it has simply become more accessible. Think of the internet, the way it has revolutionized not only what we can hear and how we hear it, but also how we communicate with each other, the very fabric of how we think. Now if that is not enough fodder for a new paradigm and a new and prolific chapter in musical history, I don’t know what is…

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4 Responses to “Open Letter to Mr. Glenn Branca”

  1. keith kawaii says:

    WOW… what a horrible, lazy piece of writing that original Branca article is. My view of his music might change because of this. It’s REALLY funny that John Cage blasted Branca’s music in the 80s, calling it “fascist” and everything. Old people will be old people…

  2. I hate to put too much thought into Branca’s polemic since he has put so little thought into writing it. It’s especially frustrating to those of us who are putting a lot of thought into both criticizing and creating new experimental musics. My first reaction is, I think, exactly what he wants, namely for us to say “fuck this old grumpy fucker, we are young, let’s prove to this ancient cranky bastard that we can produce new and challenging sounds.”

    There’s definitely a fascistic idea motivating Branca’s words. As he writes: “There’s no question that in music, like politics, the bigger the audience gets the more the “message” has to be watered down.” This might reveal his real problem, namely the democratization of experimental musics that seems to be going on now (due to the internets, blah blah); there’s more of it now than ever (maybe) and it’s reaching a wider audience (for example, squares like me). But, like I said, I don’t think too much attention should be given to someone who declares the end of music in 5 thoughtless paragraphs. I think he’s just trying to be funny.

  3. Emilie Friedlander says:

    That Branca is simply trying to be funny here has occurred to me as well, but if that is so I think he is definitely being pretty dead-pan. Maybe you’re right about him just doing this as a ploy to get people all hot and bothered so that he can come back and “save the world” with his new piece. Either way, I think it is pretty sad that he got away with publishing such fluff in the New York Times. If a journal expects to be recognized as a journal of record, it should at least ask its op-ed writers to put a little bit of effort into substantiating their arguments.

  4. parallelliott says:

    I agree. NYT should have higher standards. The least Branca can do now is to take into consideration the hundreds of comments his article has received and provide a response or an expansion of his argument so that it actually has substance. Chances are, though, that he’ll maintain his uncritical, passive nihilistic position and say nothing more.

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